Friday, January 3, 2014

Big Cat Confusion

A recent cover story in TIME magazine implies that wildlife are a dime a dozen--people finding deer in a motel room, bears in a kitchen, alligators on the front porch. Here at Berryridge Farm, wildlife encounters have pretty much been confined to the outdoors, thank goodness. And there are lots of them, depending on the critter. Deer? See 'em everyday. Rabbits? Our garden beds are fenced tighter than a high-security prison, thanks to the gazillions of them that call our place home. And we have birds of every feather: songbirds, ravens, and hawks, and even bald eagles aren't uncommon.

Then there are rodents. This is the country, so they're everywhere. Voles have eaten more of our crops than we have. And despite trapping, mice have their run of the place. In our shop/barn, crawlspace, and once even in the house, we see more evidence that they've been around, rather than see them for real. Mostly those telltale black specks, but there was that time I lifted the hood of my car to check the oil, and found a mouse nest on the engine. And I once put my foot into my muckboot and found the boot toe full of something. Yanking my foot out, I turned my boot upside down and found that mice had stored a cup or so of squash seeds in it!

Face-to-face encounters with those little pests have been rare, but one memorable day, I was cleaning straw out of the garden shed and suddenly felt a lump inside my boot. I looked down, and eeeeek! A mouse had jumped into my boot! I tore the boot off and dumped out the mouse pronto. But it took days to get rid of that lumpy sensation on my foot.

We haven't seen many bears, and I'd like to keep it that way. But when it comes to big cats, they're the rarest of them all. In our neck of the woods we've had only 3 or 4 sightings in the 7 years we've been here. Years ago, John saw a mountain lion in the woods, but all this time I'd seen a bobcat maybe once every other year, slinking around our fence line, half-hidden by the brush.

The day our hens were attacked, I saw the big cat that had done it on the other side of the chicken coop. I was too upset to see anything but the cat's head, and the expression on its face--fierce and insolent. I assumed it was a bobcat, though I'd heard they were shy. But then, I'd never seen any other kind of cat on our place.

Then a few days ago, I got a close look at a bobcat. It was staring longingly through the fence, like it would have liked to nab a rabbit, but had no intention of exerting itself too much. What was more important, though, was that I got a good long look its face, which was narrow and streaked with black markings. It didn't look threatening at all...and if Tweety Bird had been around, he would have said, "I think I see a puddy-tat."

I realized then the cat I'd seen just after the attack was a mountain lion. It had a wide, tawny-colored face, almost golden, and piercing eyes that stared right back at you. After all I'd heard about dealing with mountain lion encounters, how you're supposed to quietly and slowly retreat, I get cold shivers. Because I didn't do anything of the kind. I yelled at it, "Get away!" then turned my back (another no-no) and raced to the house.

I should have known. Because this big cat had the nerve, the guts to climb our fence, and squeeze through the hens' tiny door. Not a bobcatty thing to do at all.

Anyway, I'll know better next time, if there is one. We still miss the hens. We didn't have the heart to replace them after they were killed. But we plan scout around for some pullets in the spring, after we overhaul the coop fencing...with the hopes that any future mountain lions around here return to their former habits of  laying low.

And I also hope that your wildlife encounters are good ones.